Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Broadstairs Fireworks Fiasco, aftermath complaint and foi and the bloggers dilemma.

 As a prominent local blogger I have some sort of duty to represent my readers, I either stop blogging at some point and give up, or continue and press cases with the local authorities.

The Broadstairs fireworks event cancellation has potentially far-reaching effects for local quality of life and local businesses and seems to go against national government policy, which is for reducing red tape and making it easer to hold local events.

One of the problems I face as a blogger with this type of incident is that the local press are in decline, my guess is that they are more interested in holding onto their jobs and advertising revenue, much of which comes from local authorities, than going and asking them difficult questions. However the councils press department that presumably was set up partly to deal with difficult questions from the press is closed to me, I can only guess this is because they didn’t like the difficult questions that I was asking them.
 The readership of this blog is fairly small in terms of the size of the local population one lot of web statistics tell me that it was read 700 times yesterday another lot of statistics that measures the different ip addresses says that about 5,000 different ones access it in a month. This sort of statistical information is difficult to assess in terms of real readership, on the one hand I know that a lot of people read the blogs from work, so where I can extrapolate an ip address I can get a bit more information, I know for instance that the Kent County Council one made about 200 visits and I would guess these weren’t all the same person visiting, on the other hand quite a lot of visits, an increasing amount are made by mobile devices, so the same person would appear twice, if like me they use both their pc and mobile to access the blogs.

In the case of what happens in local authorities and I mean by this the various local councils, police, fire and ambulance services, they obviously have to balance public risk and therefore what events may cost them against local people having some quality of life. There is a sense in which all of their jobs would be easier and there expenses lower, if there were never any fireworks ever again anywhere under any circumstances. This of course means they can always produce a strong and sensible sounding case for stopping any individual event, obviously if there were no fireworks allowed in this country, then no children would ever be injured by one and the case for not having injured children is always a strong one. Obviously this taken to its logical conclusion means no transport no machinery and so on to, no life.
 With Thanet District Council and the councils that predate it, my guess is that some time in the council’s history a clerk probably on a salary of about £30k pa in todays Mars Bars, was allocated to smooth the way for local events, a further guess is that this developed into a department, responsible for local events with a senior officer on about 50k with about four assistants on about £30k.

Various negotiations made them unsackable with guaranteed pensions, a whole department costing say £250k then had the brilliant idea that they could charge for licensing local events, bringing in say £150k, i.e. a net loss of £100k.

The next stage is to regulate local events with ever more complex rules, so there are less local events and therefore less income. In local government terms and healt and safety term, the culmination of this would result in a net cost of £250k and no local events.       
 Back to my dilemma, as I can’t use the press department, I have to use the facilities that have been opened up under the auspices of open government to the every individual. Official complaint and the freedom of information act. In reality when asking questions from a media point of view i.e. on behalf or 5,000 of you that read this blog, a dialogue with the council would be better for me and probably better and more significantly cheaper for them.

As it is I ask my questions this way and probably won’t get an answer for at least a month, so if I ask them, “is the sky blue?” and in a months time they reply “the sky is orange” and then I reply that I have evidence that it is blue and send them this evidence, then they reply that having read my evidence they concede the sky is blue, the whole process of asking them why they have painted the moon blue, so we can’t see it could take about a year.

What this means is that I have to try and think of all my questions in one go, part of this is looking for what their motives could be in performing a seemingly senseless act like causing the cancellation of the Broadstairs fireworks event.  

So below  in blue, is my first daft of my request to them and as I am asking this on behalf of you my readers, then you may have thoughts about this that you may wish to put as comments. 

Hi this is an official complaint and foi request relating to the cancellation of the Broadstairs fireworks display, please also be aware that this complaint and responses to it are for publication as I run one of the more popular local internet blogs http://thanetonline.blogspot.com/ readership at the moment is about 5,000 unique individual readers per month.

Under normal circumstances I would ask for this information via the press office but as the council views independent internet news publication as unaccredited so I am barred from using this facility. However this is factor that you may wish to consider in relation to the time you take to make the response.

The background to this is that the general consensus of local opinion seems to be that, the council, in a time when national government policy is to make this type of public event subject to less red tape and easier to put on, produced increased regulation and prevented an annual event that had the same safety precautions as last year and previous years.

The substance of my complaint is that the council stopped a regular popular event with insufficient notice to the organisers by increased red tape and that they failed to engage the public in this issue; provided no press release and no public explanation.

I am also complaining that the council knew in advance that the event would not take place and so didn’t publicise it on their tourism websites.

The following questions should be answered under foi legislation. 

1 Was there any political motivation for this action, I ask this as the Ramsgate display went ahead as normal, Ramsgate is predominantly Labour and Broadstairs predominantly Conservative and TDC has just changed from Conservative to Labour control. I have subsectioned this question to facilitate ease of answers.

A Did the new administration put any pressure on officers to stop the event?

B Did the previous (shadow) administration put any pressure on officers to stop the event, to show the new administration in a bad light?

C Did officers act in this way to ingratiate themselves with the new administration?

2 Which council department was responsible for the increased regulation of the event and what is the remit of this department?

3 What is the cost of this department? I have subsectioned this for ease of answering.

A How many officers are employed in this department?

B What is their total remuneration?

C What approximately are the other costs of this department?

D How much does this department generate in income form fines, Licensing etc?

4 Is it the council’s intention to stop the program of firework displays that normally occur throughout the year in Broadstairs?

5 Is it the council’s intention to increase the regulation and red tape for events in Thanet?

6 Did the council have any other motivation for preventing this event occurring that I haven’t thought of so haven’t asked about?

7 Why didn’t this event appear on any of the council’s three tourism websites before it was cancelled?

8 Were there any significant differences between this years even and previous years events that caused the council to prevent the event from occurring?

I will add anything that occurs to me and anything anyone suggests that makes sense.   


  1. Hi Michael

    There's quite a lengthy comment from Iris Johnston on IsleOne: http://isleone.co.uk/with-a-whimper regarding the cancellation which might answer some of the questions you've raised...

  2. It's amazing how quickly things go "tits up" when Iris is involved !!

    I guess there will be endless paragraphs in the local press from her now bleating on about how it was everyone else and not her ..... simply Pathetic.

  3. From your article, if you think that there are more staff employed in this area now and at increased cost it may be worth asking how many were doing this work say 5 years ago or whatever period you think is relevant. Legally I would think that the records should be available for at least this long or you could ask for information as far back as the information is held if this would be of any use for comparison purposes. This would help clarify the cost issue raised in your article.

  4. Michael,

    Are you able to become an accredited member of the press ? Maybe as a photographer or something else via the "back door" ? Maybe via your publications ?
    I assume you already have public liability insurance via your shop so that should cover all that off.

    I'm typing as I'm thinking so if you've tried this or it isn't something you want to do then I apologise, I just thought it might be a way of making things easier for you. Try the below, might not be of any use but maybe worth a look:


  5. Could you not create a new identity for yourself ... like 'MC Public Relations' then apply for accreditation?
    Then you could get the info that you seem to crave without wasting officials' time on FOI answers?
    Then you could go back to creating entertaining blogs with those great photographs that you used to do.

  6. Gareth, thanks for that I had assumed that Isle One had expired as they hadn’t posted for over a month, I usually manage to keep tabs on this sort of comment via http://thanetblogs.blogspot.com/ but the ones that are not hosted on blogger like Isle One won’t work in this way.

    I would have thought around midnight on New Years Eve there would have been crowds in excess of 1,500 on Broadstairs front anyway. Perhaps they thought that the fireworks would drive them into some sort of frenzy.

    I will also ask some more detailed questions about the Safety Advisory Group, such as how long they have been in existence and why they didn’t ask for different arrangement last year.

    12.43 I didn’t realise Iris had an anonymous antiadmirer, try to lay off the personal comments, I left this one though as it made me laugh, I thought perhaps you may have been one of her past admirers. The Thanet lasses who were carnival queens, took part in It’s a Knockout at the marina and so had quite a following, I recommend you open a bottle and watch them in action on youtube.

    12.52 I see what you mean, Parkinson’s Law in action I will give it a go, a group of policemen who never arrest anyone, firemen who never even get warm and officers who moved off the streets into the warm come to mind.

    RossM and 13.00 well I did put about 100 photographs yesterday that were taken yesterday and today is a bit wet for the camera hence the Festival of Britain ones in the post.

    I reckon the main criteria for having a press card is deriving some sort of income from news gathering, I think the main problem there is already having a full time job, I see my local history publications as a bit of a hobby gone mad and don’t think it really makes any money.

    I think the problem here may be understanding my motives which are primarily to try to ensure that the various local authorities which cost us a small fortune in taxation, don’t stop any sort of leisure activity in Thanet.

    You have to understand that most of highly paid, say over £1,000 per week officers, don’t actually live in Thanet so don’t have any incentive to make it a pleasant or even viable place to live. They do however have a very large incentive not to do anything that could jeopardise their positions.

    I suppose that at the moment the only way that you can approach these people at all is through this modern notion of open government, of course if this is something you are against you have the right to say so, however I don’t think posting anonymously in this rather obscure blog will go any way to ending administrative transparency.

  7. Not expired... merely resting.

  8. I think the key question is, "to whom are the officers of the Council accountable?"

    My perception is that there are several examples where major c*ck ups have occurred without anybody falling on their sword. In fact, some of those whose performance I would question have left with handsome payoffs; which brings us back to the question - who is accountable?

    Councillors say they have to follow officers' advice. Officers claim that they only put forward options and that Councillors make the decisions. Other Councillors say that the options placed in front of them are often limited.

    Money should reflect responsibility and responsibility should only come with accountability. I think we need a quantum change in accountability.

  9. Please carry on blogging and as someone said below, create a new identity to get access to info you want. Thank you for the time you put into helping your community.

    People need independent commonsense and if possible unbiased reporting.

    Since Emperor Constantine grasped the opportunity to control the masses with misinformation and the laws based on them we have been kept as economic livestock for the gain of a very select few.

    If Bankers created this economic recession to whom are we paying all this massive interest? Since when did creating a Mother and Father FUBAR end put in the instigator getting rewarded with a profit? We are kept in fear believing there is no other system. There is and as some of the most creative and innovative life forms in the universe we can create it. We only need to believe that we can. That’s what OCCUPY is about.

    A paradigm shift has occurred recently, which allows people to wake up from their apathetic sleep and change our arbitrary economic structure, political structure and way we treat each other. You can provide along with other free spirits the beacons that guide people to that freedom.

    If we don't grasp this opportunity then spiritually and environmentally we are doomed to extinction. Watch for the Icelandic volcano’s cleaning the aviation pollutants out of the air again soon. In 1783 they also emitted toxic clouds of poisonous hydrofluoric acid/sulphur-dioxide compounds that killed thousands in the British Isles and 10’s of thousands across Europe. I have asked our Government what plans they have in place to prevent these deaths happening again … they have none.

    2012 will reveal many things and many opportunities for those who control us to create fear in us to keep us in line. People like you are needed to stop that happening.

    From this point on watch your readership grow. But don't for a minute think you won't be attacked and tested.

    To 2012 … and equity and justice for the people.

  10. It won't get any easier for organisers of events on TDC land:


    However, event organisers on private land should remember what the A stands for in the acronym of the "SAG" - Safety Advisory Group.

    Unless such events break any laws or cause unacceptable nuisance when running, no one can stop them going ahead - not even the Police.

    Used properly SAGs are a boon to organisers who used to have to contact individual emergency services, the highways authority (KCC) etc. Now it is a one stop shop and theoretically more efficient. Local Councils like Thanet have very little power unless any event is on their property, where they obviously will be interested in their own duty of care and mitigateing any risks.

  11. Sorry the full link won't cut and paste.

    Google "Thanet SAG" or "Thanet Council Land Hire"

  12. There you go 18.15 http://www.thanet.gov.uk/leisure__culture/event_organisation/land_hire.aspx I can only explain how to do this by email as if I try to do so as a comment it will appear as a link and not the text you have to write to make a link.

  13. Michael,

    I suspect there is nothing sinister at work here. It will just be a case of good old fashion incompetence and a jobsworth culture. If they had a brain they would be dangerous.

    Our local pusillanimous press is no good to us.

  14. Your first photo says it all, the good old Ramsgate Corp could climb up on the Clock House chimneys to fix lights, TDC can't even climb up there to fix the roof.

  15. "Councils spent more than £30m responding to almost 200,000 Freedom of Information requests last year, the Local Government Association has revealed."

    Good use of council funds ?


  16. At £150 per request it will take a long time for Michael to waste a similar amount on FOI requests, than the £40,000 the council themselves wasted on the HOOT inquiry.

    And he may do something useful with the information.

  17. "Councils spent more than £30m responding to almost 200,000 Freedom of Information requests last year''

    That is all across the country thankfully and not just in Thanet. But it still creates an average bill of £150 a Request/Reply/letter and there lies the real question.

    Taking a civil service pay grade that Cameron protected at £21K p.a gives a £10 an hour wage . That makes an average of 15 hrs to process one request?? 2.7 enquiries in a working week?

    The above figures would mean 100 workers are processing 3 request a week for a year.

    And Cameron protected the wages and jobs of these people?

    Before anyone starts piling on heating, electricity bills, paper, printing and postage the figures still add up to money for old rope. And ... all of these people could work from home, its mostly database/electronic mail anyway and the Internet averages 0.50p a day.

    These people are in the business of admininstrating our society, giving a fair days work for a fair days pay. That is not happening.

    Its the same in the NHS admin because the nurses, bless them, don't get the rewards or support and in the Universities, non productive 'individuals' creating a money pit.

    Every MP, every Councillor, every civil servant can be replaced without a golden handshake if they don't perform the will of the majority ... except no one will get up off their backsides and make it happen. Save 38 Degrees and globally Avaaz who are at least gathering numbers for electronic protests. For me, Recalls and votes of no confidence should be more common in order to reverse the fear issue. They work for us!

  18. Let me save you some time, and us all some money Michael, given I was the Cabinet Member in charge of this area until 8 December.

    No officer will have acted in any way out of political motive, either for, nor against the administration, incoming or outgoing.

    I had no contact about this matter prior to leaving the post 8 December - and that must mean no issue had arisen before then. I can say that with confidence because of my direct involvement with a not dissimilar issue that arose earlier this year with an RTC event failure to do the paperwork in a proper and timely fashion.

    I had no contact from officers post 8 December as the issue arose, it would have to have been dealt with through the incumbent Cabinet Member, Cllr Mrs Johnston.

    I was not consulted by the organisers of the event for advice/assistance. I became aware when Broadstairs Town Councillers were circulated with paperwork relating to the issue, as I left to travel north for Christmas.

    Clearly given the timescales between 8 and 23 December when the Council offices shut, there was little time available for retroactive permissions and re negotiation.

    Your only real questions are: was it a valid decision, and on what grounds?

    Did the political level of debate around the issue, as stated in the newspaper, reflect the concern the public feel it should?

    Twice now, on Thanetlab, and in Isle one, the political administration have stated the organiser withdrew: that is not what I am hearing in Broadstairs, where it has been an issue of real concern.

    It is entirely possible there is some fault on all sides; and a swift and simple look at the facts within TDC should establish that quickly.

    Finally: the rules and regulations concerning these matters have for some years been becoming more onerous and difficult to manage - based chiefly on fear of law suit. That is something which needs tidying at national level I should imagine.

  19. Right Chris, what I am trying to be clear about is whether this department in the council is supposed to make local events happen or if is there to prevent them from happening.

    With the political bias business this is probably down to perception, from where I am looking you have Ramsgate, a predominantly Labour town and all the events seem to stop happening under a Conservative administration, Tall Ships, Powerboat Weekend and so on. You have Broadstairs a predominantly Conservative town and all the events seem to continue under a benign Conservative administration. Just a coincidence you think. Then we have a change of administration and the first major Broadstairs event is cancelled, another coincidence.

    The national government David Cameron saying local events will now be easier to arrange, all lies?

    A swift simple look inside TDC about this issue on behalf of the 5,000 people who read this blog is what I would like, a simple dialogue to establish what actually happened and the opportunity to publish exactly what officers and councillors actually have to say about it.

    I have been denied access to the council’s press office, in writing by the councils chief press officer and told that I have to ask all questions relating to issues raised on this blog via the complaints and foi department, where a response to a question usually takes about a month.

    Hence the trying to work out and ask questions about all sorts of unlikely scenarios so I get some sort of answer in a month’s time, that doesn’t involve another question and another months wait.

    So here’s the deal, you find out what actually happened, I will publish exactly what you say, with any illustrations you provide and I will drop the complaint and foi request.

  20. ....and Chris Wells makes the case for FOI requests perfectly.

    "Twice now, on Thanetlab, and in Isle one, the political administration have stated the organiser withdrew: that is not what I am hearing in Broadstairs, where it has been an issue of real concern."

    FOI requests don't get responses of guesswork, secondary information or rumour -just fact, backed up by a parliament act.

  21. Ok this is what I have done, which I hope makes sense, I have sent the following to the chief press officer ccd to the chief executive, Chris Wells, Iris Johnston and Clive Hart.

    Justine, Sue, once again I have come up against the problem of not being allowed to engage in any dialogue with the council’s press department, this time it’s the Broadstairs fireworks issue.

    Could you kindly read or at least skim through yesterday’s blog post http://thanetonline.blogspot.com/2012/01/broadstairs-fireworks-fiasco-aftermath.html and let me know how you want me to proceed with this one? I.e. foi complaint, dialogue today with officer, response from you for publication.

    Best regards Michael

  22. Another TDC SNAFU, probably not helped by the majority of senior management living outside of thanet so they do not have a great deal on interest in what goes on while they are not there, and seeing they were all on holiday from 23/12/3011 to 3/01/12 {at least}. They were probably quite suprised when they came back to thei tea and biscuits and free car parking. A job evaluation exercise reducing all the senior managements wages by 50% might put some local staff in positions of responsibility and improve the budgetary position.

  23. To anonymous at 22:43;

    As I have said before in all seriousness this is nothing more than endemic incompetence, with a dash of indifference.